“Good fences make good neighbours.”

~Robert Frost

Assertiveness – a brief ‘how to’ guide

By Cindy Trevitt, Registered Professional Counsellor and Master Practitioner in Clinical Counselling

“Many of us spend our whole lives running from feeling, with the mistaken belief that you can not bear the pain. But you have already borne the pain. What you have not done is feel all you are beyond that pain.” 
~Kahlil Gibran

Assertiveness is the art of authentically, respectfully and truthfully, without malice, communicating our observations and needs to others with the intention of establishing richer relationships and better boundaries with others.

Typically, there are four primary communication types:

♦Passive (or avoidant or distancing) is often associated with the fear of hurting the feelings of others, with pleasing (or appeasing) others and with an over-riding preoccupation with maintaining harmonious relationships with others at the expense of our own integrity. Often it is precisely the so-called easy-going person who appears on the surface to fit in so well with the plans and agenda of the group, but who actually ends up being relatively invisible because no one really knows what she or he truly likes or wants. When we express ourselves in an apologetic, diffident, or self-effacing way, others can easily disregard us. Passive behaviour is a failure to engage properly with life; can be inauthentic and usually results in others deciding how we should spend our time.

♦ Passive-aggressive: Guilting, shaming and blaming others is the key to getting your own way with passive aggressive behaviour. It is a form of manipulation and involves playing the martyr so that the other person feels so guilty that they give in to you. It is a way of indirectly sabotaging, negating or subtly digging in your heels without claiming responsibility for your own feelings and actions.

♦ Aggressive behaviour is concerned with self-centred activity, where a person focuses exclusively on their own rights, needs and feelings while neglecting the well being of others. It can be demanding, threatening, manipulative, and may be concealed behind a seductive façade of charm. It is ultimately self-serving and often relates to self-aggrandizement and the need to preserve power and status.

♦ Assertiveness is about conveying what we really want in a clear, honest, unambiguous way, in a manner that respects our rights, our needs and our feelings and also the rights, needs and feelings of others.

Being truly comfortable with being yourself means you can:

  • Express your opinions while respecting the opinions of others.
  • Express your anger and irritation openly.
  • Refuse requests and say no non-defensively.
  • Speak up in small groups fairly frequently.
  • Celebrate in style!
  • Make complaints.
  • Criticize without feeling bad.
  • Look at people when you are talking to them.
  • Apologize only when it is genuinely due.
  • Make requests and ask for help.
  • Express affection openly.


Which communication type are you?

* If someone asks you your opinion or what you would like to do, do you often say, “I don’t know” or “What do you want?” – Passive

* When you’re mad or hurt by someone, do you stonewall? Remain silent? Leave the room? – Passive aggressive

* Do you slam doors, drawers, and windows? – Passive aggressive

* Do you hang on to things, remaining silent only to one day blow up? – Passive becoming Aggressive

* If you find your feelings are hurt, do you make sarcastic remarks? – Passive aggressive

* Do you use humour to relay your feelings? – Passive aggressive

* Do you tell everyone else but the person you’re angry with about how you feel? – Passive aggressive

* Do you hold in your feelings only to burst into tears later and when someone asks you, “What’s wrong?” you say, “Nothing”? – Passive

* Do you blast people with your wrath? – Aggressive

If you said yes to any one of these, then chances are you have used a communication style other than assertive and perhaps could use a communication tune-up.

A common misconception is that being assertive is being ‘angry’ or ‘getting in people’s faces’. This is, in fact, far from accurate. Assertive is all about being authentic, direct, specific and forthright with your feelings while being respectful of others. When we use the term ‘confront’, that also has some angry connotations but in essence, speaking to someone directly about a specific issue is confronting them but it’s not about aggression or being angry necessarily. Being angry is acceptable and healthy and you may feel angry while being assertive but watch the words and tone you use.

The first thing you have to do is check your thinking following an incident. What has this other person done specifically? What facts do you have to support your perception? The next thing you have to do is check your feeling. What is it, exactly, that you’re feeling? Here’s a primary list to get you started:

Fear Anger Guilt Sad Empty Hurt

Now, you have to collect your thoughts. Many people find it helpful to write out what they want to say beforehand. Be sure that you are really clear about what you want and the message you are about to convey. It’s sometimes difficult for the most diplomatic of speakers to deliver a concise and clear message when we’re offended, angry or deeply hurt.

Firstly, make a request to speak to someone. Avoid just blurting out what you have to say. The other person may not have the time or be in an emotionally receptive space to hear what you have to say and you may have little or no success for this reason alone. Consider that you are entering into a sacred space of connection with another person and do so with dignity.

Enter into the discussion from a centred place. Get clear on what you want to say from the heart. Imagine the conversation going well. Imagine what you’ll say and what they might say. Imagine you’ll push through the discomfort or difficulty with the reward of some mutual resolve with the other person.

Also imagine things not going well but you continue to push through. Imagine you move through the interaction still being skilful, respectful and heartfelt.

Drink in the rewards: self-respect, release, growing close with others that we’re open with, courage, now someone knows how you think and feel, proud of yourself for being strong and speaking from the heart. Perhaps the other person will also benefit from you speaking candidly.

“Good fences make good neighbours.”
~Robert Frost

Try using this simple assertiveness formula:

I feel (Feeling word, i.e. angry, sad, hurt) when you (Describe specific behaviour, i.e. they arrived 30 minutes later than agreed) because . (Describe the impact their behaviour has had, i.e.I had to stand on the street corner waiting for you while I was hungry and cold.))

An example of not being assertive might be: I feel that you are a jerk when you piss me off because I get really angry when you do that because clearly you don’t care about me.

Instead try: I felt hurt when you didn’t call me to tell me you were going to be late for lunch becauseI was hungry and don’t feel my time is valued.

It might feel a little more satisfying to ventyour anger or lash out in hurtful ways (you may have been raised in an environment where those methods were modeled) but it will likely only elicit a defensive response from the other and no change will occur. Seek honest ownership of your feelings and use a less accusatory tone. The latter is more likely to elicit a more understanding response.

Keep in mind that if you’ve had a long history of speaking to people in a non-assertive way, you may have trained them to expect the same tone and attitude and it may take them time to notice you’ve changed. Be patient and stick to your guns. You’ll be impressed with the results. Try explaining what you’re doing. An honest attempt to change for the better is often well-received.

It’s important to stay away from judging and evaluating the other person’s behaviour or trying to interpret what their feelings or intentions are. Stick to your feelings, your perceptions, and describing specific behaviour. 

Avoid generalizing with words like always, never, ever, every time, and forever. For example:

“You never listen to me! You’re so selfish!” doesn’t tell the listener how you feel but instead generalizes and evaluates. This is pretty much guaranteed to repel the listener. A more effective statement might be, “I felt diminished when I was talking to you just now and you continued to read the newspaper. My perception is that you weren’t listening to me.” The listener may deny that they were not listening – remember to stick to your point. Then ask for desired behaviour, “Okay – so you said that you are listening to me, could you please look at me when I’m talking to you?” Remember to acknowledge when they give you the desired response. Tell them you appreciate them listening and that you felt appreciated, acknowledged, or valued by them.

“Give sorrow words. The grief that does not speak whispers the o’er-fraught heart, and bids it break.”
~William Shakespeare

Look the person directly in the eye (not staring or glaring), face your body towards them, stand up straight and at a comfortable distance, and keep your arms uncrossed and open. Be very conscious of your body language and facial expression. If you’re mad do not smile. Try to consciously furrow your brow and turn the corners of your mouth slightly down. Smiling contradicts your message and says, “I don’t really mean this”. If you’re hurt, don’t laugh. It’s not funny. Remind yourself that you’re feeling a little uncomfortable and that’s okay – keep going. Speak in a level tone of voice. Remember to breathe. Speak your sentence and wait for their response. If there’s a silence following your statement, that’s okay. Give the listener time to digest what you’ve said and respond. You’ve done your work. Get ready to listen.

Listening is key to being assertive. If you want to be respected, you have to treat others the same. Give them an opportunity to respond. It’s common for people to defend, defer, or excuse when they are faced with an assertion – that’s okay. Don’t get entrenched in a dispute. Stick to your original message. Tell them, “I understand this may be difficult to hear but I want to make sure that you understand my point” – and repeat your statement. Let them know you’ve heard what they’ve said. Remember that their reaction does not negate your feelings. Your feelings are your feelings and their feelings are their feelings – the two are separate and unique. It’s okay to have different opinions – you don’t have to agree. Ask questions for clarification. Don’t change the subjectDon’t add another pointDon’t bring up another related incident – no matter how tempting. If you keep throwing more wood on the fire, how do you think it’s going to go out?

Also remember that people may or may not always say or do things that we want them to do. That’s out of our control. The main objective for you is to state your feelings so that you feel better. You are the one in charge of your emotional well-being. To quote Eleanor Roosevelt, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent.”

Did you know that there are positive assertions? This is when someone has done something that you like or appreciate. Remember, positive reinforcement is an excellent way to have desired behaviour repeated. A positive assertion goes something like this: “I feel loved when you bring me a mocha latté without me asking because it tells me that you’re thinking about me even when I don’t ask or we’re not together”. Positive assertions are essential in any relationship. It is so easy to focus on the negative but keep in mind that if the only things you ever comment on to your partner, friend, lover, etc. are negative – what kind of relationship are you choosing to cultivate?

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless.”
~Mother Teresa

Set little goals for yourself and begin to practice in small ways working your way up to the bigger goals. Celebrate each time you make an attempt. In time you can become quite adept at this. And being assertive leads to improved self-esteem, less emotional baggage and richer relationships.

If you wish to copy this material to other publications please ask for permission by writing cindy@mycounsellor.ca.
Thanks for your friendship.

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